Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A White Politician, a Hispanic Activist, and a Distraught Palestinian Walk into the Ambassador Hotel

For of all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
(John Greenleaf Whittier, 1856)
I couldn’t help but think of these well-known words when reflecting on the tragic events that happened in the first hour of June 5, 1968.
The White Politician
Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy won the Democratic presidential primary in California on June 4, 1968. Late that night he walked into the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to join many of his enthusiastic supporters for a vivacious victory celebration.
Just after midnight, Kennedy decided to call it a night. Hemmed in by the crowd, he followed the maître d'hôtel through the kitchen/pantry area of the hotel in order to exit by a back door.
RFK never made it out of the hotel on his own, for as he passed through the back kitchen area he was shot several times at close range. Rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital (about ten minutes away), he died less than 26 hours later.
There is good reason to think that had he not been killed, RFK would have garnered the Democratic nomination for President in 1968.
In the November election, Richard Nixon just barely won the popular vote—and there is also good reason to think that he well may have lost the election if RFK had been his opponent.
“Of all sad words of tongue and pen . . . .”   
The Hispanic Activist
Dolores Huerta had enthusiastically welcomed Kennedy to California in March 1968. Although long overshadowed by Cesar Chavez, she and Chavez were the co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 and was/is an indefatigable civil rights activist.
In an interview posted (here) just last month, Huerta (b. 1930) vividly recalled the day RFK joined thousands of farmworkers in Central California to celebrate the end of Chavez's fast for nonviolence.
Huerta happily walked into the Ambassador Hotel after the close of the California primary, and then stood on the podium with RFK as he gave his acceptance speech on that fateful night of June 4/5.
Huerta (on left) with RFK on 6/4/68
(If you haven’t seen the recent PBS documentary on Huerta, available for viewing here, I highly recommend it.)  
The Distraught Palestinian
Sirhan Sirhan was born (in 1944) in Jerusalem into an Arab Palestinian Christian family with Jordanian citizenship. When he was 12, his family emigrated to the U.S., moving to California after a brief time in New York.
On the night of June 4, 1968, Sirhan also walked into the Ambassador Hotel—but with a far different purpose than Kennedy’s or Huerta’s.
According to a reviewer of Mel Ayton’s book The Forgotten Terrorist (2007), “Sirhan Sirhan was not just a crazed 24-year-old Jordanian immigrant. He was in fact a radicalized Palestinian refugee with a clear political motive to attack the U.S. and its political institutions.”  
As a New York Senator, Kennedy had a large Jewish constituency. With the June 1967 Six-Day War fresh in the headlines, to Sirhan and many other Palestinians, Kennedy's unfortunate pledge to arm Israel seemed to be a declaration of war against the Palestinian people.
Sirhan was soon arrested and the following year was sentenced to death for assassinating Kennedy. With the change in California laws of capital punishment, in 1972 his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
Surprisingly, a May 26 article in the Washington Post (here) is titled “Who killed Bobby Kennedy? His son RFK Jr. doesn’t believe it was Sirhan Sirhan.”
Regardless, the assassination of RFK is said to be the first major incident of political violence in the U.S. stemming from the Arab–Israeli conflict.
Again, sad words about what could have been so very different.


  1. The minute after I posted this article, I saw this related opinion piece in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/politics-were-unimaginable-without-rfk-then-they-were-unimaginable-with-him/2018/06/04/452379a4-6804-11e8-bea7-c8eb28bc52b1_story.html?utm_term=.e00f5fb72cad&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1

  2. Amazing how points of history trigger other things. Two things I remember from '68 were that the locals were so sorry to hear of the death of Robert Kennedy because that would mean the end of food aid - all US Gov't food commodities were labeled "Gift from the Kennedys and the United States". The other was related to the Cultural Revolution - the Peace Corps was deported for bringing western "propaganda" to the classroom (I recommend "We Were Walimu and Young"), and all the banks were nationalized so "African Socialism" could begin under the tutelage of Mao - the Ambassador recommended that all Americans pack and prepare for a quick run for the frontier boarders (thankfully the second call to run never came, but we were ready and in the Land Rovers). Sadly, socialism began and many died as a result. Chinese imperialism is once again making major inroads. It was lethal in our day, and highly questionable now, but with a very corrupt government, inevitable. So many more details to the stories long forgotten to back memories.

    Thus are global politics. It is worth hearing alternate perspectives on global history and dynasties. Oliver Stone is but one alternate. The history of the Church is not pretty either (especially Rome), nor are other religions. Arrogance, pride, conquering, and bitter revenge seem to lead the way. God save us.

  3. A sad day to remember. Bobby Kennedy had much to offer. I did see the PBS special on Dolores Huerta, a powerful reminder of all the energy that went into the farm workers organizing. Politics always changes, like everything else, but some times seem much more challenging than others. The sixties were a time of extraordinary change for me. I and others thought much of it for the better. The election of Nixon over the anti-war highly liberal Eugene McCarty in 1968 indicated many felt otherwise. Some of the wounds of the Vietnam war have healed and some are still fresh. And we have other fresh wounds to deal with. Democracy is a challenging journey.

    1. Thanks, Larry, for reading and responding to the blog article--and for your comments about the documentary on Dolores Huerta.

      The presidential election in 1968 was, of course, between Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. The percentage of the popular vote they received was 43.4%, 42.7%, and 13.5%.

      At the time of RFK's assassination, Humphrey was leading in the delegate count among Democrats. At the moment of Kennedy's death, the delegate totals were: Humphrey, 561; Kennedy, 393; McCarthy, 258. At the turbulent Democratic Convention in late August, Humphrey won the nomination handily: on the final ballot he received 1759 votes to 601 for McCarthy.

  4. Donna Sue and I were living in Los Angeles when this tragic event happened. As most of us know, the Kennedy`s were very well liked in California and very well may have defeated Nixon in the election.
    This event put a sad pale over the Los Angels area for a long time and as we know, our LORD is in control and it happened for a reason.

    1. Thanks for your comments, John Tim. I had forgotten you were living in Los Angeles when this tragic event occurred.

      I think we need to be careful, though, in thinking that RFK's assassination, or any other tragic event caused by misguided people, is somehow the will of God or that God's will was the reason behind it.

  5. Yesterday I learned about a speech RFK gave exactly two years before his death. In it he said, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

    I like this emphasis on tiny ripples of hope.

  6. A Thinking Friend, who is actually older than I, read this article and responded yesterday with an email in which, among other things, he inveighed against the "inflammatory rhetoric" used by both JFK and RFK.

    In response, I wrote, "Thanks for reading and responding to my most recent blog post. I am a bit puzzled, though, by your reference to JFK's and RFK's 'inflammatory rhetoric.' I didn't hear or read much of anything they said back in the 1960s, but recently I have read some of RFK's speeches in a book titled 'The Gospel According to RFK' (2004) edited with commentary by Norman MacAfee. Certainly there is little that is inflammatory in the talks included in that book."

  7. Thinking Friend Charles Kiker in Texas makes this brief but very pertinent comment:

    "How different our history might have been but for that fateful event. 'Of all sad words of tongue or pen . . .' Indeed!"


    1. Thanks, Charles, for your comment. -- Yes, what a difference a Kennedy presidency would most likely have made in 1968 and through the years/decades following.